The buzz about town has that a new chain of restaurants is opening up, called Otarian, which aims to be a “low-carbon” place to grab healthy options. Curious to see how exactly one defines “low-carbon” food, I stopped by after work to get my dinner.
Otarian looks like any other New York, new-age deli, with white walls, sleek metal accents, and brightly woven baskets decorating the wall. I stopped in around 7 pm, and most of the tables were occupied by a wide range of people – teenagers, a businessman, a couple of woman friends. I walked up to the counter to peruse the menu. Up on the board I found selections like a portobello mushroom burger, potato onion o dill flatbread (they seem to stick “o”s in at random places, bear with me), penne o gratin, curried apple o parsnip soup, and deserts like apple crumble. After each item was listed the “carbon saving” from buying the item, the total carbon, and a comparison to a regular meal.
While I studied the menu, another man walked up to the counter. “Hi!” chirped the worker at the counter. “How can we help you save carbon today?”
“What?” The mad said, clearly befuddled. He probably just wanted a sandwich. I giggled to myself. I too just really just wanted a sandwich. I ended up not even looking at any of the carbon numbers. I just picked out something that looked yummy. After all, everything is supposed to be low-carbon, right? Plus it was just too much information.
She started with the standard response, something like “We are putting too much carbon in the atmosphere for our earth to handle…” which, I already know, thanks, and then went into the good stuff. Apparently everything is from recycled materials. All the materials used to build the restaurant, the containers and takeout bags, everything. “Well,” I pressed on. “If it’s supposed to be low-carbon, why are you serving sodas? That’s fairly carbon intensive, right?”
“Um, I think it has less to do with what’s in the food than like, the gas, and producing it.”
I stifled a laugh. “No! I don’t mean that soda is carbonated, ha, I mean that it is shipped all over the world…and stuff.” She looked at me blankly and shrugged, smiling. “I’m just doing my job.”
Undeterred I kept going. “Sooo, is the food local?”
“Local? What does that mean?”
Oh man, I felt bad for doing this to her. “It means, you know, like, it’s grown in New York State instead of far away.”
Another girl came to her rescue. “Yeah, it’s local.” My girl shrugged again with an apologetic smile. She handed me my little paper bag with my veggie burger inside. The wrapping was minimal: paper, a paper sleeve that is recyclable and compostable, and that’s it! What a refreshing takeout bag, that isn’t stuffed with napkins and packets and utensils.
When I got home, I did a little research while I ate my “vego” burger with chutney mayonnaise and salad. (By salad they mean onions, tomatoes, and lettuce.) Otarian is the plaything of Radhika Oswal, an Australian wife of a billionaire owner of a fertilizer manufacturing company. The first restaurant popped up downtown at Bleeker and Thompson, the second at the 56th and 8th Ave. She has plans for a third in NYC at some point, plus more in London. She’s gotten a lot of flak from places like The Village Voice for opening a low-carbon restaurant, while simultaneously jetting around the world to run these restaurants, and building a ginormous, palatial, entirely too large mansion in Australia that can house 12 cars. Really?
It’s amazing what kind of fun ideas you can pursue when you are married to the equivalent of a venture capitalist. It’s like that final scene in Romey and Michele’s High School Reunion where Michele marries a billionaire and decides to open up a store with her designs. Cute. But not ground breaking.
Still, as I finished off the last of my burger, I had to admit that it was pretty tasty. I’ll probably go back again after work at some point to try some of the other stuff. Maybe this time I’ll actually look at the carbon numbers. Or not.